I like it when someone cooks for me. OK, not groundbreaking news. I do like to cook and I love being invited to a friend's house for a homemade meal (hint, hint), but restaurants are their own category. Sure someone is cooking for me, but it's usually a "man behind a curtain" scenario. There's some unseen person, or rather people, doing who knows what to who knows what kind of ingredients. There's a lot of blind faith involved. The trust at Gary Menes' new Los Angeles restaurant, Le Comptoir, removes much of this guesswork for a fully transparent, in your face meal, quite literally.
Menes has his own farm where he grows 80% of the food that is served at Le Comptoir. The rest is sourced locally from reputable names like Grist and Toll, who provide flour for Gary to make his own bread, using his own 20 year old starter. Menes' farm is all organic with no pesticides and it's non-GMO. The scraps from Le Comptoir are composted and put right back into the soil from which it came. It's the full circle of life.
Comptoir is French for counter, as in the counter where you'll be sitting, watching your food be prepared. Fear not though, you won't see, or feel, flames licking the sides of pans or feel huge bursts of heat from large ovens opening and closing. Menes and his team of two, make all the magic happen with a handful of powerful induction burners and a tiny convection oven. He likes cooking in the open and sharing the meal and experience with the diners. There's nothing to hide when he's incorporating freshly picked produce from his farm and letting the ingredients shine with precise technique.
Take the amuse bouche, a sticky rice, infused with local garlic and topped with a blistered shishito pepper. I asked how he was able to get such intense, non-bitter, garlic essence into the tiny bite, and he smiled and with a twinkle replied, it's all about the timing. It's a delicate dance of when the garlic is added and for how long. Spoiler alert: it's added at the very end, for a very short amount of time.
Menes' freshly plucked romanesco was pureed to a near velvet veloute, so slick and rich that I had to ask if there was cream. He did admit that just a touch was used, but only for consistency and texture's sake. This texture is nicely offset by crunchy bread chunks and a dollop of greek yogurt that sits in the bowl before the hot soup is poured on top of it. My spoon did a few once arounds that bowl to get every last drop. Sublime.
The garden really came to life in the second course with a vegetable and fruit medley, reminding me of Centeno's crudite plate at Ledlow. Textures, colors, cooking techniques all collide in this beautiful grouping of caramelized carrot, cool tangerine, bright beets, pickled onions, warm celery root and crisp beans. A great addition to any meal.
Menes spent time cooking at the French Laundry and we got un petit French nod with the oeuf en cocotte. Served in a small, oval cast iron pan, the egg is lightly cooked and drizzled with a brown butter. Luckily some of the homemade bread is there to help with the inevitable bowl licking and scooping of yolk-butter drippings.
I hate to even tell you about this next course since butternut squash season is coming to a close and this item is being replaced as we speak, but I'll torment you anyway as he'll be using similar techniques and ingredients with the replacement. His squash is like no other. It's bright and vibrant, but made rich with roasting in a butter and herb coating. It came charred with wheat berries, pumpkin seeds and preserved blueberries that stand to tie a lovely vinaigrette together. I almost forgot that I wasn't eating meat. Everything was so satisfying and pleasurable. I can't wait to come back next year for this same dish.
The vegetable parade continued, though additional supplements to the $69 menu are available if you're missing meat. Foie gras, crab-lobster bisque and prime beef were on offer the night I dined, but I had the straight up vegetable based menu and did not miss a thing. You can also choose a reasonably priced $42 wine pairing for 5 wines or order one of the wines by the glass.
The fifth course started with a dollop of fresh polenta on the plate, followed by a single roasted apple quarter, then roasted cauliflower, almonds, a single wrapped scallion, topped with a jus d'onion. Again, seemingly simple but utterly complex in taste and texture.
Dessert was a beautiful sourdough donut with a sticky blood orange glaze - perfectly crisp on the outside and pillowy on the inside. A single brûléed banana sat beside it and scoops of sour cream and meyer lemon curd sat across. It was light, but sweet with the right notes of citrus. It's just how I'd like to end a meal at a friend's house.
Menes has a gem on his hand with the 10 seat counter, 2 seatings a night (6 and 8:30pm) Le Comptoir in the Hotel Normandie. It's like going to a friend's house, assuming your friend has his or her own garden and can cook really well and simply finesse ideal ingredients using skilled technique. I'm happy to hear Menes has a 10 year lease with his new restaurant as I can't wait to go back to this friend's house to eat.
3606 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA